ST. LOUIS — With Pope Francis’ encyclical on ecology and the environment set to be released next week, the U.S. bishops are reflecting on possible themes of the upcoming document.
“We can be sure that concern for the poor will be a central theme throughout this encyclical,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami said June 10 at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ general assembly in St. Louis. He suggested Catholics should approach ecological topics “with our hearts aimed to the glory of the Creator and our eyes wide open to the need of our brothers and sisters, including those who come after us.”
Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., likewise reflected on the encyclical’s prospects for providing a global perspective that helps the poor.
“The Church has come to understand that the health of the global family is dependent on the health of its weakest members,” he said. “Poor nations need to develop in order to reduce poverty, but we must help them to follow a more sustainable path to economic development than the one we took.”
Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si (The Care of Our Common Home), with the title in medieval Latin, will be published June 18.
Archbishop Wenski chairs the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, while Bishop Cantu chairs the Committee on International Justice and Peace.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the U.S. bishops’ conference president, introduced their presentation. He said that the U.S. bishops welcome the “tremendous opportunity” to help the faithful receive the encyclical in “a thoughtful and prayerful way” and to help “elevate the conversation” above ideological and partisan divides.
Archbishop Wenski said the U.S. bishops can help ensure that Catholics hear Pope Francis.
“Let us work to create space for people of goodwill to consider the Holy Father’s message. He has a voice that will transcend the partisanship that has characterized much of the debate on climate change.”
The Miami archbishop expected the encyclical to address concepts like “integral ecology,” which explains that “our care for one another and for the environment are intimately related.”
He suggested that the Pope will criticize actions that “casually discard people and the gifts of the earth.”
Cooperation with God’s design applies both to people’s relationship to the natural world and to their relationships with one another, Archbishop Wenski explained. People should resist the “throwaway culture” in favor of a culture of “solidarity and encounter.”
Bishop Cantu said an integral approach to ecology links “the welfare of God’s people and God’s creation, of rich and poor, of our nation and the world.”
He expected the encyclical to offer a global perspective. He noted Pope Francis’ repeated calls to counter the “globalization of indifference” with global solidarity.
The encyclical could also reflect on the link between ecology, human security and health.
Bishop Cantu noted problems like the growing geographic range of tropical diseases, intensifying storms and rising sea levels that threaten low-level countries and islands.
Poorly regulated mining operations, especially in Latin America, have had “calamitous” public-health consequences, including birth deformities and premature deaths due to environmental degradation.
These situations can increase violence and pressures to migrate northwards.
In Africa, climate shifts have also worsened drought and desertification, creating pressures that lead to violence, extremism and death.
“Drought in a place like Africa could very well result in the starvation of thousands, if not millions, of people,” Bishop Cantu said.
The bishop also noted the need to protect natural resources to feed humanity.
However, Bishop Cantu criticized what he said is a “false linkage” between ecological problems and population growth. He rejected aggressive population-control efforts in developing countries and noted that some ecological problems, like massive greenhouse-gas production, are mainly produced by a “small portion” of the world’s population in advanced countries.
He said the real issues in ecology are consumption, waste of resources and unsustainable practices.
Unsustainable practices mean “everyone will suffer from climate impact,” while renewable-energy sources and sustainable technology will benefit everyone.
Although there is no advance copy of the encyclical, Archbishop Wenski suggested its outlines can be found in Catholicism’s “rich tradition of teaching about stewardship in creation, rooted in Scripture.” He noted precedents in the writings of St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
For their part, the U.S. bishops have issued a statement on the environment: their 1991 “Renewing the Earth.” They also issued a climate-change statement in 2001: “Global Climate Change, a Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good.”
The archbishop said Catholics have a significant responsibility to ensure the care for creation while resisting a “culture of waste,” working to protect the poor and respecting the “sanctity and dignity of life.”
Archbishop Wenski compared the pollution of waterways to problems like “the pollution of young minds through pornography or issues like the redefinition of marriage.” These all have effects on “human ecology.”